Coronavirus rates appear to have slightly slowed their breakneck rise in all three Roaring Fork Valley counties, but local health experts say it may only be a momentary blip amid virus levels that are still worse than any other phase of the pandemic.
Pitkin County epidemiologist Josh Vance said some of that slowing can be attributed to decreased testing on Thanksgiving day.
“I think it gave some communities a false sense that we were actually seeing a plateauing when really it was a facade,” he said.
Even expanded testing in Aspen, including new sites that do not require symptoms or a doctor referral, have not had a significant impact on the area’s coronavirus numbers. Nor have any inconsistencies in the pace at which new cases are reported.
“It's not surprising that we're seeing a lot of cases come in, but I don't think it's attributed to a data dump or to a lack of information,” Vance said. “I think it's really just the fact that we're trending with the rest of the country.”
Public health officials cited three major factors that mean virus rates will likely not see a significant slowdown until the middle of January. First, new infections that occurred during Thanksgiving travel and gatherings will not appear in county data until about Dec. 10.
Additionally, shorter, colder days will drive people inside, where transmission is more likely in small private gatherings and workplaces. On top of that, some of the winter’s busiest periods of tourist visitorship are on the near horizon, threatening to double or triple the number of people present in counties with destination ski resorts.
The county posted its highest-ever single-day total of new cases on Thursday, with 24 residents testing positive. That total reversed an apparent leveling-off in the county’s 14-day rolling average of new cases, where rise appeared to slow down toward the end of November.
The tremendous influx of new cases could overwhelm the county’s small team of workers who are tasked with finding out where spread occurred.
While virus rates surge, Aspen Valley Hospital has remained relatively underwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. Vance said that is probably a fluke, and expects it to change in the coming weeks.
“I'd say it’s almost in this bubble type environment when it comes to hospitalizations for COVID, because we are seeing hospitals fill up across the country and across the state,” she said. “Hospital beds in Grand Junction filled up a week and a half ago.”
Aspen Valley Hospital has tended to transfer COVID-19 patients away to other hospitals in Colorado if they require serious treatment – meaning that full hospitals in other parts of the state could leave the most critical patients with no place to go if they develop serious symptoms after being hospitalized in Aspen.
The 14-day rolling average in the county dipped as well, but the number of hospitalized residents reached 10. That number had not cracked double digits since April, when the county was slammed with an outbreak in the early throes of the pandemic. More than a dozen of Eagle County’s highest single-day new case totals were posted in the month of November.
Birch Barron, the county’s emergency manager, said the virus is so prevalent in the community, people can get infected during activities that were considered relatively safe not so long ago.
“Even people who are being really, really careful with social distancing, maybe because they themselves or their loved ones have underlying conditions – they don't have out of household contacts, they only go out of the house to get their necessities met,” Barron said. “Those people are getting exposed to COVID. Now we're seeing it enter our most protective environments or skilled nursing facilities are schools at a much higher level. And even those really, really small private gatherings and businesses and environments in public that are taking all of the precautionary steps are high risk environments when disease level is this high in the community.”
Even with those increased levels of risk, setting health-minded restrictions is a complicated balancing act for policymakers. Closures of restaurants, retailers and other in-person services would devastate the workers and businesses who would miss out on income during that time – an issue felt acutely in resort communities.
“If they lose their businesses, if they lose their jobs, if they can't put their kids in school, there are serious health impacts to that as well,” Barron said. “Their ability to put healthy food on the table, keep a roof over their family's heads, their ability to have medical care and afford the expenses that they need to quarantine or isolate at home, or if they need to be hospitalized for any reason. That goes down if they don't have consistent gainful employment.”
The 14-day rolling average in the county has stayed steady for about a week, after a period of staggering rise that began in the first week of October and has left the county with an average of more than 40 cases per day – more than double the highest average set during the second wave in July.
Carrie Godes, a public health specialist in Garfield County, said the only ways to slow continued and expected rise sit in the decisions of individuals – whose choices to wear masks, avoid gatherings, and follow other public health guidance are the best chance to reverse climbing case counts.
“We’re feeling quite exasperated watching the numbers being as high as they are and feeling like there aren’t a lot of options,” she said.
Another Garfield County public health official said the county was “slammed” with the steady influx of new cases, straining the capacity of contact tracers.
Public health officials agreed that any differences between each county’s past few weeks of virus data are likely superficial. Minor discrepancies in the timing and reporting of testing could contribute to those differences, and all three counties are still in the midst of record-high virus rates that are poised to stay high further into the winter.